Newcastle play-maker Toby Flood is not entirely certain which clubs he expects to welcome to the north-east of England for the Champions Cup final on May 11.
Having built up a bid surrounding the use of football’s famed St James’ Park, the English city won the right to host the 2019 showpiece.
Flood can’t wait for that glamour fixture to now unfold as it will put Newcastle firmly on the rugby map in becoming only the ninth different city to host the European decider in the tournament’s 24-year existence.
However, so evenly matched does he feel both semi-finals are this weekend, he only eventually gives a hesitant vote to Saracens and his former club Toulouse to set up an Anglo-French final at the expense of the two remaining Irish provinces, Munster and Leinster.
“Sorry, I can’t pick them,” said the 33-year-old to RugbyPass when quizzed on which teams he expects to be doing battle on the banks of the Tyne in three weeks’ time.
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“But if I was going to say, I would say Toulouse might sneak it against Leinster and then I think Saracens will just have enough with home advantage to sneak it with Munster.”
Flood is a long-serving Champions Cup veteran, featuring in 46 matches during 10 different campaigns for Newcastle (one season), Toulouse (three seasons) and Leicester (six seasons).
He appeared in quarter-finals with the Tigers in 2014, 2013 and 2011, but his most agonising season came in 2009 when an achilles injury in the English club’s semi-final win over Cardiff ruled him out of the final at Murrayfield versus Leinster, the province he now expects to be ambushed in Dublin by the visiting Toulouse.
? ONE DAY TO GO ?
The semi-finals are almost upon us ?
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 19, 2019
“I have still got a soft spot for Toulouse,” he explained. “I was back there a couple of days ago. You have got friends there who you have a relationship with that you would like to do well.
“It’s going to be an incredibly tough for them to play Leinster in Dublin. I find it bizarre Leinster are allowed to play there. I don’t know the rules on that, but Saracens have had to move to Coventry (for their home semi-final) while Leinster stay in Dublin. I don’t know how they get to play there because they get to play there quite a bit.
“It’s not as neutral as it could be, but there is going to take a huge travelling support and the French are incredibly vocal supporters. My head says Leinster, just because of Leinster’s pedigree, but my heart would like to say Toulouse.
“If anyone has the opportunity to win those games it is probably Toulouse in the sense of how they have been playing away, the willingness and the heart they have to throw the ball around.
“Leinster are incredibly creative around set-piece stuff and they have got some big ball carriers, but they are much more pragmatic. Toulouse are going to throw it around and we’ll see how they get on. That’s going to be quite good fun. It’s a meeting of two good teams, a meeting of two very differing perspectives of how to play the game.
“I don’t know if it [Toulouse’s revival] is so much about him (coach Ugo Mola). He has got a very good, young group coming through. (Romain) Ntamack is a very good young player, Thomas Ramos a great player, and they have got guys up front who are starting to mature, the likes of Cyril Baille.
“They have been astute in the market buying Cheslin Kolbe for what they want to do. He has been very impressive. But above all of that, and this is a real credit to themselves, they have brought Clement Poitrenaud back into the system.
“He’s making a huge impact in terms of their skill base, in terms of playing the off-loading game. He has put a huge amount of emphasis on the skills for producing in tough moments when it’s really difficult.
“The key to it is the structure. When I look at it, X, Y and Z haven’t really changed but what has happened is that skill execution has and bringing Clement back into the system has been very impressive and very important.”
Leinster hosting Toulouse is the second semi-final on a bumper Champions Cup weekend that kicks off with Saturday’s collision between Saracens and Munster in Coventry.
“You have actually got two very similar teams, both very set-piece orientated with very good nines who like to box-kick well. I have a feeling it’s one of those ones where I can’t really pick (a winner) and that is what makes it so good because Munster have definitely got the ability to disrupt Saracens’ game.
When someone tries to make plans on Champions Cup semi-final weekend ? pic.twitter.com/hV1yxs9wDP
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 19, 2019
“They are willing to sit there and play very calm, very patient rugby and not get involved in too stressed plays which is what Saracens want you to do. They want you to throw it around to then make the mistakes for them to put the pressure on you.
“Munster have that structure where they can just sit there and play. Saracens won’t struggle to dominate in terms of set-piece battle, but they will find it hard, as they sometimes do in the Premiership, to get a foothold in the game.”
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